The three most valuable persons on the PGA Tour are Tiger Woods, commissioner Jay Monahan and … Hollis Cavner.
Maybe in that order; maybe not. When I suggest to Cavner that he might be No. 1 in that lineup, he doesn’t want to hear it. “No, no,” Cavner said. “It’s got to be Tiger.”
Cavner is a behind-the-scenes lifesaver for the PGA Tour. More precisely, he is a tournament-saver.
Cavner, 62, started in the 1980s as a gopher at ESPN – emptying trash cans, getting coffee, whatever was needed – when the all-sports network telecast Senior Tour events. He later jumped into golf tournament administration at the U.S. Open and went on to form Pro Links Sports, a management group based in Blaine, Minn., that operates the Mexico Championship, a World Golf Championships event; Valspar Championship; Wells Fargo Championship and this week’s inaugural 3M Open in Blaine, just north of Minneapolis. Pro Links Sports also runs two Champions Tour events, was involved in salvaging a fall date for the Houston Open after it lost Shell as a sponsor; found a sponsor to rescue the Champions event in Boca Raton Fla., and began the Valspar Invitational, a top collegiate tournament.
The Wells Fargo and Valspar events were on the ropes and about to go away before Pro Links Sports and Cavner stepped in and saved them. Cavner’s longtime Champions Tour event in the Minneapolis area was considered among the circuit’s best stops. It was that success that led to its upgrade to the PGA Tour.
So, what’s the secret to holding a successful tournament? “Sales and service,” Cavner said. “We overserve.”
If that meant flying in shark cartilage or buffalo meat to make senior star Chi Chi Rodriguez happy, Cavner did it. If it meant inviting his friend Arnold Palmer to stay at Cavner’s home during the 3M Championship and make sure he had his own golf cart, Cavner did it. Anything it takes to make players and caddies feel like they’re getting first-class treatment, Cavner makes sure it happens.
On the business side, it’s all about building strong relationships with sponsors, local charities and community leaders. Though Cavner says his company is like a family, he also has an iron-clad rule: “If you can’t sell, you can’t stay,” Cavner said. “Anybody can operate a golf tournament. You’ve got to sell it.”
It has worked to make Cavner, a people person who’s able to create lasting friendships in mere minutes with his hospitality and generousness, an accidental power broker in pro golf. He’s not interested in that. He’s interested in presenting golf to as many folks as he can get to watch.
His model at this week’s inaugural 3M Open at TPC Twin Cities might be the future of golf tournaments. The 3M Open is a civic happening that includes golf. Country music’s Zac Brown Band will perform. There will be fireworks. And more.
“We’re not trying to get golf fans,” Cavner said. “We’re trying to get people to the course, and then we’ll make ’em golf fans. The golf almost gets in the way of a really fun time.”
Cavner credits a number of others who mentored him in his early days of tournament operation. Perhaps no one was more important than the late Palmer, an annual participant in the Twin Cities’ senior-tour event and the tournament’s biggest draw.
Cavner got to know Palmer when he worked ESPN senior-tour telecasts. Palmer took a liking to him because, Cavner said, Palmer respected workers who hustled. And Cavner hustled. “He took me under his wing,” Cavner said.
Thus began a long friendship with Palmer, plus the late Miller Barber, Don January and many other older stars.
“The key to our success when we first started was having Arnold be part of our events,” Cavner said. “It became a game with us. Every year, I had to do something to recruit him. At Bay Hill one year, I hired a plane to pull a banner and follow him around the course with the message: “Arnie, call Hollis to commit to 3M.” He finally called and said, ‘Get that damn plane off my property.’ That was our running joke. I had to do something to show him I wanted him.”
Cavner enjoyed the bull sessions at his house during tournament week. It drew the likes of David Graham, Ben Crenshaw, the late Bruce Lietzke, Nick Price and others.
“I loved to get Miller Barber and Arnold going,” Cavner said. “Once, I asked Miller, ‘How many times did you beat Arnie?’ Miller hitched his belt and said, ‘I got him 12 times.’ I turned to Arnold and said, ‘How about you?’ Arnold said, ‘Sixty-two.’
“Miller got up and said, ‘You sonofabitch. I played every hole in America into the wind. I found every divot in the world. And the gallery would let my ball roll out of bounds, but they’d throw your ball back. If I’d had your luck, there never would’ve been an Arnie’s Army; there would’ve been a Miller’s Mob!’ Arnold was on the floor laughing by the end.”
Palmer’s presence will be felt this week. He was co-designer of the new TPC Twin Cities course along with Minnesota tour star Tom Lehman. Palmer also teamed up locally with Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam after Cavner bought an existing golf course, Tartan Park in Lake Elmo, then asked Palmer to redesign it. When the land purchase was completed, Palmer was excited to get going with the project. Cavner then asked for a favor: Let Sorenstam design nine holes for what would be rechristened the Royal Golf Club.
“I said, first off, nobody’s given her a chance in the U.S.,” Cavner said. “You guys are great friends. Plus, I’ve already got the names picked out: the King and Queen nines. Just like that, Arnold goes, ‘Let’s do it.’ And then he said, ‘Make sure I get the best piece of property.’ And he laughed.”
Cavner was a true Palmer insider. He and his wife often went on trips with Palmer and his second wife, Kit. They were so close that at Palmer’s 85th birthday party, a small gathering in the Latrobe (Pa.) Country Club clubhouse, Cavner was among only six invited guests that included Palmer’s two sisters.
Two weeks before he died in September 2016, Palmer flew in to check on the progress of TPC Twin Cities. Cavner called Palmer to invite him to come by after an associate of Palmer’s suggested that if he wanted Palmer to see the place, he’d better call soon.
Palmer flew in within a few days, and Cavner picked him up at the airport. They toured the course, along with Sorenstam and Paul Spengler, a longtime golf executive and Palmer pal. There was one par-3 hole that Palmer wasn’t fond of and wanted redone. Cavner laughed and said, “We’re already re-doing it.”
The group spent the day together, and Palmer gave the course his blessing. Back at the airport, Palmer got out of the car and walked over to give Cavner a big hug before ascending the plane’s stairs. “We were back in the car and Spengler said, ‘He just said goodbye,’ ” Cavner said. “I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
Palmer died two weeks later.
TPC Twin Cities and the 3M Open are therefore among the final pieces of Palmer’s legacy. They’re really the legacy of Hollis Cavner, who teed up Palmer for a memorable encore.
Minnesota golf fans should feel lucky to have a PGA Tour stop again for the first time since 1969. In this part of the country, maybe Hollis Cavner is the real No. 1.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle